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06/09/2012

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

Unlike the two previous book reviews which also drew on notes and observations from my travels, this one is written straight on the rocks. During the process of selecting summer reading I somehow stumbled across the 'The Testament of Gideon Mack', having never heard of it before, and became very quickly fascinated with it after reading the Amazon blurb:
If the devil didn’t exist, would man have to invent him? For Gideon Mack, faithless minister, unfaithful husband and troubled soul, the existence of God, let alone the Devil, is no more credible than that of ghosts or fairies. Until the day he falls into a gorge and is rescued by someone who might just be Satan himself. Mack’s testament – a compelling blend of memoir, legend, history and, quite probably, madness – recounts one man’s emotional crisis, disappearance, resurrection and death. It also transports you into an utterly mesmerising exploration of the very nature of belief.
I found myself, during a bout of indecisiveness in which I had a variety of other books in mind I'd been wanting to read for sometime, keeping coming back to the novel. I had promised myself (and my significant other who worries I never allow my brain to rest) a summer of light fiction, instead of the usual haul of theological and historical books, but decided this was a compromise I could get away with.

And so I bought it.

And it didn't fail to live up to my expectations. It exceeded them. 

Kind of.

Gideon Mack is the son of a Scottish minister in the Church of Scotland, or Kirk as it is known colloquially in Scotland. Growing up in Ochtermill, described as a small village in Stirlingshire, in a household brought to life by the author in all its authoritarian and loveless glory. Gideon describes himself as being a natural chameleon - a boy who survives in a tough environment by 'acting' out roles according to what he perceives people want him to be. This sees him living a dual life as dutiful, studious, middle-class son of the Manse at home, in front of his domineering Calvinist father and mouse-ish Gaelic mother, whilst simultaneously being the Jack the Lad with the gangs of working class laddies at school - all the while self-conscious that he is naturally neither.

This feeling of being a fringe character, of somehow being different, and of somehow not feeling the same emotions others feel, incessantly stays with Gideon Mack as he enters university life and meets close friends, including his future wife. We, the readers, are left wondering whether Gideon Mack is an emotionless manipulator, an unfulfilled charismatic, or simply someone overly critical of himself having never experienced affection and positive regard. Meanwhile the people around him, not being privy to his inner thoughts at this point, are seemingly 'fooled' into thinking he is a genuine, kind-hearted, game for a laugh, ordinary kinda guy.

This dual life continues as Gideon Mack seemingly lives with a seething, repressed resentment towards his father - a vow to not become him - yet walks the same path towards the ministry (albeit dragging his heels along a convoluted route). Despite being open to his friends about his lack of belief in God and a Jesus who walks with you in the here and now, he dilutes these sentiments when he speaks to his father, talking only in euphemisms of 'having doubts' - to which his father, portrayed as a man in decline in terms of his authority, responds without his usual criticism (perhaps significantly so) instead casting them as a natural state of being before convincement. He later passes away following a stroke, a milestone not without symbolism.

Having being ordained and married to Jenny, Gideon Mack seems to excel in his role returning the declining church in Monimaskit to the centre of community life by channelling its collective energies towards coordinating fundraising - acting as a figurehead and exemplar through charity running, whilst insisting privately that his lack of belief has not changed. He has his critics, with whom he seems to spend substantial time preoccupied with (as he does with his father), but is otherwise admired by his congregation and the surrounding community. To stave off his doubts, now extended to his relationship with Jenny, Gideon Mack focuses on busying himself with ever increasing fundraising targets.

Then - with the story of Job springing to mind as I reflect on it - the sudden death of his wife occurs, which Gideon Mack notably fails to articulate his feelings about (via the manuscript) in a way you would perhaps expect. Not in terms of explanation but in terms of emotion. This marks the transition of what was an enjoyable, well-placed yet pretty mild novel about Scottish small town life into a more surreal, haunting tale.

Not long after his wife's death, Gideon Mack reports in much more detail (via his manuscript) a sexual encounter with one of his best friends, Elsie (his wife's best friend, and his best friend's wife) who he has quietly lusted for, and longed for, since their time together at university. Again, the scene is rich in symbolism.
Following this event, he continues to busy himself - particularly with running - until he makes a strange discovery in the nearby woodland, with a standing stone (an interesting feature of Scottish ancient history and mythology) suddenly appearing on one of his familiar routes. Over the coming months Gideon Mack becomes increasingly fixated on the stone and its meaning, in a similar way he has previously found his attention directed towards perceived detractors. The ongoing mental decline of his mother, from Alzheimer's, which leaves her shell-like, also contribute to his restlessness - particularly as he muses that this state of ill health is not far removed from her character when in full health.

And then comes the really weird bit.

In an effort to rescue a friend's (and fellow minister's) dog from a ravine known as the Black Jaws, Gideon Mack is swept under the raging waters and into a cavern. This is perhaps not unexpected, blurb aside, given the emblematic power the ravine has already been invested with through an art exhibition in which Gideon Mack has previously been involved (you'll have to read the book for more, otherwise I'll spoil every part of the story). But rather than drowning, he is 'rescued' by a strange figure he refers to as The Devil and spends a darkly bizarre three days with him, having his broken leg healed in the process. Again recounted through his manuscript.

As an aside, it is worth noting this is not a completely random scenario, given British mythology around fairies, some of which is based on Iron Age era Pictish peoples and remains of their underground dwellings in Scotland. The character of Chae Middleton possibly has implicit connections with this.

Given up for dead, Gideon Mack reappears to his community - and following a tense build up - reveals to his experiences within the Black Jaws to his church, at a service already declared heretical by some (a Mexican Day of the Dead inspired funeral ceremony for an infamous local worthy). He then goes further to spell out his 'real' thoughts on God and admits to his apparent misdemeanours (namely, the affair with Elsie). He is instantly ostracised - declared mad, bad and dangerous, and sad - but appears to gain a sense of release, and purpose, from this new status.

Quite significantly, shortly before his revelations, his friend and fellow minister attempts to recast the story Gideon Mack had confided in her  (whilst taking a service at his church during his prescribed rest and recovery period) as one in which he had a near-death experience and touched heaven. But on hearing this, he rebukes and condemns her, resolving to tell his own truth - as though the author is giving a deliberate rebuttal to any safe Christian-mystical interpretation of the narrative.

From there the story ends quite abruptly with Gideon Mack finishing his manuscript, the prologue having already informed us it was found after his final disappearance, and subsequent demise on Ben Alder (a mountain with real-life mystery). The epilogue, which feels a little like an unnecessary add-on, clouds the water further by seemingly confirming some of the strange events documented in his manuscript, and contradicting the more ordinary, as the residents of Monimaskit are each interviewed. Again, this feels like a deliberate rebuke from the author to any safe rationalist interpretation of the story, that Gideon Mack simply experienced a psychological collapse (a casting of the story into the same mould as Martin Scorcese's 'Shutter Island' perhaps).

James Robertson's novel is as engrossing as it is unsatisfying. 

What really happened to Gideon Mack, this ordinary guy with the qualities and flaws of the next person?

Are we reading a story about the damage caused by a pious yet unloving childhood - a nod to attachment theory even?

Or is it some kind of sociological commentary on a changing Scotland, specifically the decline of traditional religion - and perhaps a hint towards a national identity crisis?

Maybe.

Yet none of it fits either box that well. Instead it all just disturbingly sits there, prompting you to turn it over and over, a bit like Gideon Mack's standing stone.

And perhaps that's precisely the author's aim.

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